The Narrative Behind a 1944 Nude Photograph

By Răzvan Ion

For a long time, this photograph was distributed on the internet with no author or credits. The beauty of the photograph and the soldier engaged in battle makes it breathtaking.

I first encountered this photograph in At Ease, by Evan Bachner, a coffee table book, no longer in print, of sailors lounging in dishabille in training camps and on board destroyers during World War II. I flipped through with a mildly historical and not terribly high-minded interest until I hit this photo. The photographer is Horace Bristol (1908-1997) and the title is “The Naked Gunner”. 

Bachner reports that in the National Archives, Bristol’s image of the naked gunner bears this caption:

PBY Air-Sea rescue plane picks up Lt. Robert A. Schaeffer, badly burned USMC F-4-U pilot of Dayton, Ohio shot down in St. Georges Channel near Rabaul. Gunner who helped bring in the pilot is back at the station. April 1944: St. Georges Channel; Horace Bristol; 80-G-473978.

The photo has become fairly popular on the internet, and a number of websites, including the U.S. Naval Institute blog, reprinted a paragraph from an interview with Bristol in the December 2002 issue of B&W magazine:

We got a call to pick up an airman who was down in the Bay. The Japanese were shooting at him from the island, and when they saw us they started shooting at us. The man who was shot down was temporarily blinded, so one of our crew stripped off his clothes and jumped in to bring him aboard. He couldn’t have swum very well wearing his boots and clothes. As soon as we could, we took off. We weren’t waiting around for anybody to put on formal clothes. We were being shot at and wanted to get the hell out of there. The naked man got back into his position at his gun in the blister of the plane. As far as I know, the naked rescuer has never been identified.

The black and white photograph above is an iconic image with an interesting tale. It shows a young naked crewman getting back into his position aboard a PBY Catalina Blister US Army Air Force aircraft just minutes after his heroic rescue of a fellow serviceman from the blazing waters of Papua New Guinea.

The man in Bristol’s photo is muscular and the aperture of his nostril is wider. Military training has built up the man’s physique, and his nostrils might have been flaring, from the adrenaline rush of the rescue he took part in.

Răzvan Ion is the founder of GAY45 and co-host of the podcast “GenClash: Queer Perspectives on Current Affairs“.. A professor of curatorial studies and critical thinking in Vienna, he is passionate about comic books, technology, the stock market, art, alternative indie music, true crime, movies, literature, drag queen shows, and artificial intelligence.

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